Union Pacific Special: Let’s Go West with the Girl of the Golden West!

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes.

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Personally I find this to be Puccini’s most bizarre full length opera, apart from maybe Turandot, and of course Suor Angelica, the weirdest opera not written by a German. It lacks both a coherent plot (it is really a standard triangle in the “exotic” setting of mid-19th century Northern California) and the broad sweeping vocal melodies of earlier Puccini works (although it does have a few good leitmotifs), however the orchestration is probably more advanced than anything Puccini wrote before or since. It is also notable as one of the few female-positive operas: Minnie is a successful business owning virgin who is probably the most respected member of the community she lives in. She is tough, she has a heart of gold, and to top it all off she can read too! This production unfortunately includes Placido Domingo as Dick Johnson/Ramirez, which I guess makes some sense since he did spend half of his childhood in Mexico.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjmSkVAvuJU&t=306s

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The Polka Saloon. (60 minutes)

7, 17, 21: The prelude pacts in about half of all the memorable music in the opera into less than 75 seconds. All of it returns later in the opera. The curtain goes up and we hear such bizarrely Anglophone words as “Hello” “Wiskey for everyone” and S.O.B accompanied by some mild Debussy-ish meandering which goes on for some time with bursts of excitement as the miners show up to drink and play cards. Puccini really makes a mash of all this with references to “Camp Town Races” and returning a couple of themes from the prelude for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, it is all agreeable, but nothing sticks around for more than a few seconds until the baritone minstrel Jack Wallace’s calming song * which is apparently based on a Native American melody. After this we have more Debussy for six minutes as the song triggers one of the miners to become homesick and they collect fare for his trip home and then their minds all turn to the gaming table, cheating inevitably ensues, and the sheriff Jack Rance breaks it up. Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent, shows up and tells Rance about  his search for Mexican bandido Ramirez before going to sleep upstairs and the other men toast Minnie, who Rance has hopes of marrying which leads to some jealousy from Sonora, a miner who has the hots for Minnie. Shots are fired and Minnie arrives * to about twenty seconds of glorious theme music as she breaks up the potentially business hampering brawl. The miners give her gifts, but things quickly turn to a bible study * as Minnie flips through the Tanakh (absolutely no Christian references are made so I assume it is a Tanakh although the order in which she mentions the book titles (Ruth, Ezekiel, Esther, Psalms) match neither Christian nor Jewish orderings so who knows that is going on!) and settles on the 50th Psalm of David (NOTE for those who don’t get the reference: according to tradition the Hebrew King David wrote this psalm upon repenting of his seduction of the wife of one of his generals, Uriah, who he had killed, the first resulting offspring of the relationship is killed by God but the second born son of this union will be King Solomon, now it probably makes some contextual sense within the plot of the opera and the forgiveness narrative Minnie will endorse later). Rarely does this turn into anything musically of interest although Minnie reflects well at the end just before the post arrives and there is more talk of Ramirez. It is a good character developer as she utilizes the biblical text both to teach literacy skills to the miners as well as for spiritual uplift (and she tells them that hyssop is an a plant from the orient, a chime rings when she mentions this).

30, 35, 40: The first of two duets which make up the second half of the act (with interruptions): Minnie and Rance in which we learn quite a lot. Rance wants to marry Minnie, but is happens to already be married. It takes a few minutes to warm up but Rance’s explanatory arioso is worth looking out for *.   This is followed by Minnie’s tranquil response which is okay but also takes forever to warm up but when she finally does it is nice ** if extremely brief (around twenty seconds actually). Dick Johnson’s arrival kills off the number. Within five minutes Minnie is dancing with Johnson * as the male chorus croons away nicely although this too is very short lived and Jose Castro, one of Ramirez men, is captured and interrogated by Rance. Somehow they briefly communicate before Castro is taken out on a supposed “man hunt” for Ramirez.

51, 54: The remainder of the act (a quarter of an hour) consists of a duet for Minnie and Johnson/Ramirez, the highlight being his declaration of love **. Much of the rest is musically rather ornery to be honest but dramatically effective and Puccini eventually throws in some themes which would make sense in any Hollywood Western, one seems to have been copied in Max Steiner’s score for the 1940 Errol Flynn western Virginia City *. Minnie is left to ponder if she really has the face of an angel as the curtain falls.

ACT 2: Minnie’s cabin with a ladder leading to an upper loft. (46 minutes)

7, 16, 18: The act opens with Puccini’s idea of scenic Native Americana, it really doesn’t come off at all and you get the feeling that the sole purpose of the character of Wowkle (!) other than her name is to keep the cast from not being over wise completely male apart from Minnie. The character never really does anything and the plot point of her papoose with Billy Jackrabbit never goes anywhere. The heart of the act is yet another duet for Minnie and Johnson/Ramirez the highlights include Minnie’s excursion * about ponies and mountainous pine trees, and Dick’s attempt at kissing Minnie before the snow storm hits *. A lot of material from the prelude pops in at this point as the snow menaces our lovers when Johnson tries to leave followed by a lovely intermezzo ** as they eventually decide to make a sleepover party out of it all with Johnson taking Minnie’s bed and her sleeping by the fireplace. Just as they say goodnight Rance arrives with Nick the barman to alert Minnie that Ramirez the bandit has been seen lurking around. This is just plot setting and not musically all that interesting.

27, 32, 37: Ramirez’ big reveal tell-all * as he goes over his family history. Minnie orders him out of her house but he is immediately shot and comes in wounded and bleeding heavily. Minnie hides him in her loft as an incredibly morbid theme appears in the orchestra which will return ** and seriously feels like it belongs in a horror film produced twenty to twenty-five years later. Rance comes back knowing that Ramirez is hiding with Minnie’s help. Although at first he seems to be on duty he tries to violate the virginal Minnie who pulls a pistol on him for the second time in the opera. Rance finds blood coming from Minnie’s loft and forces her to bring Ramirez to him (more purple morbid theme). In the last section of the act (about eight minutes) Minnie challenges Rance to a poker game **: if she wins Ramirez goes free, if he wins he can kill the passed out Ramirez and take Minnie’s virginity. This is the dramatic climax of the opera and rather terrifying. Rance relishes the idea of defiling Minnie and so agrees. Minnie plants four aces in her garter to guarantee her victory. A sinister pianissimo bass theme runs through the scene as they play the three deciding rounds. Rance loses the last round because Minnie cheats, he goes, and the act ends with Minnie triumphant to the morbid theme from early. If I didn’t know better I would be freaked out.

ACT 3: A forest clearing. (24 minutes)

0: The act opens with a brief prelude ** so low and dark and DEEP that its closest relative is the opening of Wagner’s Siegfried. The scene between Rance and Nick that follows is to the exact same music.

4: The manhunt ** as Ramirez is captured followed by a long interrogation before the lynching party gets really close to finishing him off.

11: Johnson’s aria ** in which he asks the miners not to tell Minnie what they are doing. I’m not sure why Forman gives this three stars because there really isn’t anything spectacular about it but it is good.

14: Minnie’s arrival sounds ** almost like that of a Valkyrie as she rescues Johnson from immediate execution.

17: She declares her love for the bandit and one by one persuades the miners to let Ramirez go ***.

21: Ramirez is released and the miners cheer their Golden Girl as she walks into the sunrise with her man, who is lucky in more ways than one ***.

COMMENTS:

Minnie, is, amazing! She is the heart and soul of the work and Puccini captures this perfectly. Johnson/Ramirez may never be worthy of her, or of her multiple successes at rescuing him (when do you hear that in an opera!), and Rance is a perverted creep with too much authority more than a villain, but Minnie is a virginal heroine with a heart of solid gold and what is more she is brave, a small business owner who isn’t a jerk, and rather well educated for a woman living in a mid-19th century California mining town! The score has its plus and minus: The first half-hour of the opera consists mostly of a long parade of musical themes, few if any lasting long enough to merit a star  because they only accompany phrases, sentences, or even just a couple of words of dialogue, all good but they just fly by with little consequence. The second half of the act is mostly taken up by two duets, both involving Minnie with either of the two male leads. Both have things that are good and things that are rather dull. Act 2 starts off with an ineffective bit of Native American “scenery” but gradually gets better not so much vocally as dramatically. The Minnie-Johnson duet is nice but only just (the storm and the orchestra help), the rather long explanatory sequence in which Rance reveals Johnson/Ramirez is musically dull, and the best features overall are the orchestration and the drama, especially during and after the poker game with Rance and that bizarrely scary theme that pops in out of nowhere when Ramirez comes back in wounded and bleeding and at the very end of the act which reminds me of the score of a 1930s Frankenstein film. The third act is by far the best musically, but also the shortest. The orchestration is the real gem of the score from start to finish. Never was Puccini so lush and effective with his orchestration while generally avoiding brashness (as we see later in Turandot or earlier with the blarring singer-drowning orchestration of Manon Lescaut). Even the things that don’t get a star should be looked out for for their orchestral interest even if vocally most the score is just sort of meh.

But alas, the plot. Belasco’s play probably made for better straight theatre than opera. Only Minnie is actually likeable, the men around her are either really nice to the point of silliness (Sonoma, Nick) or jerks who really don’t deserve her (Johnson/Ramirez, Rance). Minnie’s motivation for saving Ramirez multiple times can only be taken with the suspension of disbelief required of most operas, and frankly there is just something comical about an operatic soprano walking about on stage in heavy night attire. There is also the fact that only the three main characters are fleshed out to any degree, and there isn’t much going on in that mining village if this one Mexican bandit is able to have them all up in arms! So what we have is Puccini’s most orchestrally innovative score in which he for the most part avoids the vulgarity, no crudity, of a Mascagni or a Giordano, but it is saddled to a very simplistic story where the only person to cheer for is the titular character, no matter how awesome she is (and she is awesome, possibly one of the best heroines ever in opera, certainly one of the strongest and independent!). The vocal lines are really not that grateful to sing at all (except maybe some of Minnie’s and occasional bits for the huge cast of males), and I can’t really forgive the creators for Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit! Not for how culturally insensitive the depiction of the characters is (it is mild at most really) but because of how nondescript and frankly boring they are! A beta, but as Forman said, a credible one, so possibly B+?

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4 thoughts on “Union Pacific Special: Let’s Go West with the Girl of the Golden West!

  1. Not really as I have basically no experience with 18th century opera, especially French 18th century opera. I did get what you were saying about the orchestration in comparison to Lully-land. It isn’t boring and the music isn’t just repeated standardized concepts.

    Like

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